A teenage girl’s bedroom is a sacred place. Hours are spent in front of the mirror trying on different identities for size, in pursuit of figuring out who she wants to be in a world that often dictates what this should be. These hours are also witness to bursts of intense creativity. In New York City, a teenaged Flo Ngala took these solitary teenage hours a step further, using her self reflection to create self portraits. She says, “The objective of this was never for egotistical purposes. I learned through shooting that the more I photographed myself, the more I understood how to tap into emotion.” The child of West African immigrants, this purposeful image-making was a way for her to better understand herself. It was also a way to manifest the ideas she had in her head without needing to ask anyone for help. “Taking pictures of myself was my first exposure to what the creative process really was, and how I decided on what I want to do career wise.”
Looking back on this work now, produced between the ages of 15 and 19 years old, she can identify different themes or phases. The most prominent being a time where she’d only ever take photos of herself in black and white. In retrospect, she says, “A part of me feels as though that period of my work was subconsciously connected to [my father’s] death and the images expressed something I was feeling but at the time never verbally expressed.”
Today at 21 years old, Flo credits self portraiture as having the biggest influence on her work as an artist overall, “This work that I do in private has been a way for me to lay tracks for what I go on to do for other people when taking images. My craft is having ideas and these portraits have basically trained me to have good ideas.”
Turning the camera on herself is not only a inward-looking process, at times her work is made as a response to the world around her. After hearing about the killing of Alton Sterling, she created “Now You See Us, Soon You Won’t”, a piece in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. She says, “I was really angry and emotional, [Sterling’s death] struck a different chord for me than the prior instances of police brutality that we unfortunately hear about way more than we should. Prior to this image, besides a retweet, share or like, I was not necessarily vocal about what I’d seen and heard in the news in regards to the deaths of innocent people of colour at the hands of police.”
The image came about almost by accident, “I’d gone thrifting this day and bought this awesome red two piece. When I got home, I grabbed my mom’s slippers and started taking full body shots. Because it had rained earlier that day, when I was going to review an image on my camera, one of the slippers got stuck in a puddle. I then thought to do these two very similar images with me in one but absent from the other.”
On selfie culture though, Flo is sceptical, “I think this generation is a little vain and phrases like “do it for the ‘gram” kind of say it all. I also feel like this comes from the fact that some of the most glorified people in society today and for the past few years are no longer the most talented, or hard working, but now tend to be the most attractive or the most scandalous. “But I’ve realised that I’m a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to this topic because I think people should be able to express themselves however they want to, and I’m kind of just a glorified selfie taker myself.”
Not surprisingly, Flo holds self expression in high regard, “My mom always says you never really know someone, you just know what they choose to show you. You can seriously control how the world sees you by how you choose to express yourself, what you wear, what you eat, what you do and that’s such an awesome thing.”
This article first appeared in Casimir’s column on Hunger TV.